The quiet man

Formula E marks the return of the Piquet name to open wheel racing after a five year absence – yet Nelson Piquet Jr has been an almost silent presence so far. He opens up here about podiums, politics and getting back to his roots. (This article first appeared as a Current E Insights publication. Download it here: Current E Insights Piquet Feb 2015)

It’s fitting that a sport that wants to reconcile the motor vehicle with the environment, preach the benefits of electric cars and wipe out the sins of our carbon-intensive society offers second chances. Along with a whole bunch of former F1 stars, the all-electric championship has also returned many revered names in the world of motorsport to the grid – including Prost, Senna and Brabham. It’s a very Gospel-like story of evangelism and redemption.

But while there has been quite some fanfare made about many of these well-known drivers, perhaps one of the most famous names had gone almost entirely overlooked until his first podium (aptly, just before Christmas): Nelson Piquet Jr.

The China Racing driver didn’t seem put out, when we sat down for a chat in early December. “I’m having a lot of fun,” he said. You’d have been hard pressed to tell, though. Until the podium celebrations in Punta del Este and Buenos Aires, he had been almost invisible, going about his business without fuss or much in the way of presence, even within the paddock. 

Piquet is the son of a three times F1 world champion who won titles with Brabham and Williams in the 1980s. Like others on the grid, open wheel racing is in his blood. Piquet himself proved that he knew how to navigate a race track: he finished second to reigning F1 champ Lewis Hamilton in GP2, won the first two races of the A1 GP series and partnered two times F1 world champion Fernando Alonso at racing’s top table. That promising top flight career in open cockpit cars came to a sudden halt with the infamous 2008 incident that become known as “Crashgate”.

Piquet’s low profile in a brand new sport that is eagerly snapping up every marketing opportunity afforded by big-name interest appears to have less to do with his attitude towards the series and more about its stance towards him. The fallout from the F1 debacle hasn’t entirely disappeared: there are long-standing connections between senior figures at Formula E and ex-Renault team principal Flavio Briatore, Piquet’s boss at the time. The ensuing politics meant that Piquet’s Formula E career was almost over before it had even begun. 

Current E Insights Piquet Feb 2015 intro

Piquet lives in North Carolina, US, close to the Charlotte Speedway – a sort of 138,000 capacity NASCAR Mecca. “It is one of the biggest races of the year and all the teams are around here,” he says. “It’s like living in Oxford or Banbury in the UK; drivers and teams move there to be close to Silverstone. In the US, a lot of drivers migrate to Charlotte.”

Piquet found his way into NASCAR after leaving F1. “It’s an amazing sport,” he says. The loss of a primary sponsor put the brakes on a 2014 drive, but he turned his hand to the Red Bull GRC rallycross series, where he notched up a fourth place championship finish last season, behind Ken Block and Scott Speed. When a return to open wheel racing cropped up in the form of the battery-powered Formula E, Piquet was immediately interested.

“I was invited right the beginning to be part of two teams,” recounts the half Brazilian, half Dutch racer in an easy American accent. “I flew in to have meetings with them, but it didn’t happen – mainly for political reasons.”

As the summer of 2014 wore on, driver after driver was announced and it looked as though Formula E would pass Piquet by. “I’d sort of given up,” he says.

Then came a phone call from Adrian Campos, whose eponymous organisation provides technical know-how and manpower to the China Racing team. “Adrian asked me if I’d like to do a test and I said sure,” says Piquet. “I came over and did the test and things went well. There was a lot of interest from Qualcomm in the series too; the company had been one of my sponsors in NASCAR and is now supporting me in Formula E.”

China Racing had a mixed time of it at preseason testing. The team was not as stop-start as Trulli and Dragon but neither did the outfit seem to be able to perform as consistently as the likes of e.dams-Renault, Audi Sport ABT or Venturi.

“At Donington, I was worried because we were so off the pace,” Piquet admits. “I was thinking – ‘Is it the car, or is it me?’ Everybody else had done so much testing and I only got there at the end. The team is a smaller organisation than a lot of the teams, but it’s a good group of guys who are working very hard.”

Those concerns lasted only until the first race in Beijing. While some teams struggled with the format and with the fragility of the cars, the season opener and China Racing’s home race ran more smoothly for Piquet than many commentators expected. “Once we got to China, things were ok,” says Piquet. “We had good pace. The car was fine. It was a new track for everybody, so everyone was back to zero.” Piquet put his car onto the grid in P10 and finished eighth – a performance all the more impressive given that his
team mate, Ho-Pin Tung, could only manage a P15 grid position and a P16 finish. 

“Malaysia was even better,” he goes on. “I like the track. It was more challenging. We were better in practice and better in the race.” That was borne out with a P6 grid start and what had looked to be a top five race finish until a collision with Jarno Trulli ended Piquet’s race by dragging him along the unforgiving concrete walls. 

“I don’t know where Trulli got that move,” says Piquet. “I’m sure he didn’t do it on purpose. I don’t understand what was going through his mind. He was going to have a drive through penalty on the next lap anyway for speeding in the pit lane, and he was still
defending like was trying to win a race. It was unfortunate, but just bad luck for me rather than anything else. It was frustrating because we were on for a good finish.” 

The team was expecting to take a significant step forward in Uruguay, the last race before the end of the calendar year. What a step it turned out to be. Piquet drove a superb qualifying session and began second on the grid, just behind the surprisingly fast debutant
Jean-Eric Vergne, who was fresh from racing in F1.

A strong start saw Piquet take the lead of the race by the first corner in what turned out to be a tough event. Surviving it was no mean feat, yet he ended up securing second position – and his first podium.It was a moment to savour for both driver and team.

The first race of 2015 yielded another podium, this time on the third step. It was a race that turned into something more akin to Mario Kart than precision driving, with collisions galore and a safety car period so confusing that even the winning driver wasn’t sure of his achievement until the race was finished. After the fourth race, Piquet occupies fifth position in the driver standings, just five points behind fourth-place Prost and just one more point further back from Buemi in third. A shot at the championship is suddenly a very real possibility.

Current E Insights Piquet Feb 2015 eyes

Getting used to the Spark-Renault has proved tricky for many of the drivers. “You don’t hear an engine and the tyres are different,” Piquet explains. “Part of the connectivity between the car and driver is the feeling – the car touching the bottom, oversteering, understeering – but sound is also a part. It shapes the way you treat the gearbox, how much you rev the engine. For some drivers, it helps us concentrate. It doesn’t matter how loud the engine is or how big the vibration is, our bodies like it. It helps us concentrate. It’s like meditating.”

While the Formula E cars do create sound that is audible to spectators, it’s a very different environment inside the cockpit, where the driver is always in front of what little noise he’s generating. Piquet echoes the sentiments of other drivers, however, who say that they quickly become acclimatised to the absence of conventional race car noise. “You forget about it,” he explains. “You get concentrated and get into the zone. You’re thinking about braking late, this corner, that corner, the little bits and pieces to put a good lap together. It just becomes a race car.”

Putting together a good lap on a slippery temporary street circuit with the torquey Spark-Renault requires an intelligent approach from the driver and a confident set up strategy from the team. “You’re trying to be precise, clean, efficient,” says Piquet. “You can’t be aggressive and crazy and driving sideways. You need to be 100% smooth. You need to be calm. In a race car, you’re always thinking ‘Can I make a spring change, an anti-roll bar change?’ to make the car faster around a corner. In Formula E, it’s a different sort of thinking. You’re less worried about working on mechanical set up. It’s not like we’re going to Sepang and then to Monaco. All the tracks are like Monaco – short, bumpy, with tight corners. The gearbox ratios don’t change, and we take as much wing off as we can for efficiency. With Formula E, 70% of the performance is about efficiency of the battery; 30% is mechanical.”

Battery management is a key issue in Formula E, and one that requires as much input from the engineers – who write the power maps – as the driver. “China was really hard on the battery, but Malaysia wasn’t,” Piquet explains. Frequent safety car periods in Punta del Este and Buenos Aires helped conserve battery life too, making energy recovery less of a concern.

“The car is so sensitive,” Piquet notes. “From cold brakes to hot brakes, there is a big difference. You can play around with brake bias and regen and things like that, but it creates more variables. You try to keep things constant. We’ve done a lot of work, changing the levels up and down. We found a way to run one setting in the race without having to play around too much. Once you hit the sweet spot, you try and keep it there.”

Current E Insights Piquet Feb 2015 aerial view

Another aspect of Formula E has proved challenging for drivers: the tracks. The calendar is chock full of brand new street circuits which, by and large, are only really ready on the day of the race. The consequent dearth of data combined with limited first-year budgets makes it very tricky to produce accurate simulators.

In the brilliant late afternoon Buenos Aires sunshine in early January, Venturi drivers Nick Heidfeld and Stephane Sarrazin stopped at a corner and looked back at the section of circuit they’d just walked. “This was straight in the simulator,” Heidfeld said, brow furrowed. “Not for me,” replied Sarrazin, neatly encapsulating the issue.

“We don’t have much time on track in Formula E, so simulator time is great,” Piquet says. “All drivers love it because we can just drive, drive, drive. Not being a very big team, we use a little private simulator, nothing extravagant. It’s one thing going on an F1 sim track, where the team has developed the track with laser maps and they build their own car so they know its geometry perfectly. In our case, we get a CAD map of the track. We don’t know the elevations, we don’t know the bumps. We haven’t built the car so we don’t have the precise engineering data. It’s very limited. Even for the teams that are spending more on simulators, how can you replicate all that? The lap times so far are about five seconds off.”

Piquet can see the benefits but thinks that the team’s limited budget might be better employed elsewhere in the short-term: “I think if we’re going to spend money on a simulator, you do it at 100% or not at all. If we’re only going to spend at 10%, it might be better to get another engineer, to spend the money where it will make a difference. It’s like if a team builds a gym: why bother building a small one with no room? You’re better off building a high end training facility where you can really test the drivers and find their weak points – or if you can’t afford that, using someone else’s.”

China Racing team boss Steven Lu has revealed that the team is serious about becoming constructor in season two, and that conversations with potential manufacturing partners are well advanced. However, it remains unclear quite how such partnerships might affect operating budgets or even what the exact technical regulations will be. Piquet isn’t too worried, though: “There are a lot of manufacturers talking to our team. If we do sign with a manufacturer, we’re looking at how much of the budget we invest with batteries or powertrains, how much support we’re going to have. The pieces will start to fall into place throughout the year.”

Sceptics have compared Formula E to the now-defunct A1 GP, claiming the all-electric series may not even survive its first year. With experience of both sports, Piquet believes that strong manufacturer interest is one factor that clearly differentiates the two. “I was the first ever winner of A1 GP and it was a great environment – to start off with,” he says. “They had a similar amount of money, but they didn’t have a plan. They were just throwing money at it, and they started changing things left and right. Formula E is different. There’s a big plan ahead. There are going to be a lot of manufacturers involved and it will grow quickly.”

For now, the Brazilian driver is simply focusing on each race as it comes. “I’m not 100% sure whether I’ll make every race this season,” he says. “It depends on sponsorship for the team. They have some drivers who are willing to pay a lot of money for a seat. I just need to get some good results in. It’s optimistic for all of us. Even in GP2, the small teams don’t have a chance of fighting with the top teams. I’m pretty encouraged by it. It’s a different kind of car, but I’ve been missing open wheel racing. It feels great to get back to my roots.”

Current E Insights Piquet Feb 2015 cover

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